As the sea level rises and the climate changes, the island Mahani Teave calls home and the culture it contains are increasingly threatened.
Easter Island, or Rapa Nui, is one of the most remote inhabited islands in the world, a small 164-square-kilometer territory in the South Pacific.
The nearest land is Pitcairn Island, a British Overseas Territory, 2,000 km away; and Chile -which has jurisdiction over Rapa Nui since 1888- which is located 3,800 km to the east.
The rolling grasslands that extend down from the volcanic ridge are dotted with more than 900 moai, the monolithic stone figures for which the island has become famous around the world.
But the pianist Mahani Teave, who has triumphed in the circuit classical music international, is part of a vibrant and living culture that encompasses much more than the famous statues carved by your ancestors.
“I feel like Rapanui children learn to walk just so they can dance and talk so they can sing,” says 37-year-old Teave.
In 2016, she was one of 11 Rapanui who established the Toki Foundation, a cultural organization that mixes classical, traditional and ecological education to offer opportunities to island youth in a society that is strongly dependent on tourism.
Children up to two years of age take classes and take preliminaries and the older ones learn piano, cello, violin, trumpet and music theory. Some lessons are taught in the Rapanui language, and students also learn ukulele, re’o riu (an ancient chant), and takona (body painting), as well as ori and hoko, two traditional dances.
Teave was born in Hawaii, after her American mother had traveled to Rapa Nui, where she met her father, who was a musician. The family moved to Rapa Nui when she was a child.
“I never felt isolated,” says Teave. “When you grow up in a place like that, it becomes your world and it feels so big. There are still places on the island that I don’t know about.”
When I was 6 years old, Teave took ballet classes and was captivated by the classical sheet music she listened to while practicing her movements, although classes ended abruptly when the ballet teacher moved abroad.
But determined, Teave convinced a retired pianist to teach her, practicing for hours after school and fearing that the teacher might end the lessons and return to the peace of retirement. At age 9, Teave moved to Valdivia, in southern Chile.
“Leaving the island was a bitter experience and I missed it very much,” he recalls. “I couldn’t understand why someone had to leave their home and its people to do something as natural as play music.”
After that, Teave went to the United States to study with the Armenian-American pianist Sergei Babayan, before moving to Germany.
Although in his career he has played in some of the most famous concert halls in the world, he was the vulnerability of their culture and the lack of opportunities on the island which made him return to Rapa Nui in 2012 to found a music school.
“While I was abroad, I thought a lot about alcoholism, drug abuse and other social problems that exist in Rapa Nui, and how all of these had a lot to do with the lack of opportunities,” he says.
“In my mind I belonged to a culture that was on the way to extinction and I always felt that there should be a music school on the island.”
One of Teave’s students was Rolly Parra, who had moved to the island at the age of 6 with her father, a Chilean Navy officer who was stationed there. He began to learn the piano in school and later won the coveted Claudio Arau Award on Chile in January 2017.
“Mahani inspired me and I copied everything she did,” says Parra. “If she played a Chopin symphony, I tried to do the same, and if I heard her play particularly hard or soft, then I did too.”
Teave’s own career took an unexpected turn in 2018 when David Fulton, a rare instrument collector, visited Rapa Nui during a world tour and was surprised to learn that she had never recorded an album of her own.
Fulton offered to finance a recording and that was how “Rapa Nui Odyssey” was released in January, reaching the top of the list of classics of the prestigious Billboard in the United States. The album runs through some of his favorite tracks from Bach, Liszt, Handel and Chopin, and ends with a powerful rendition of “I He a Hotumatu’a”, the hymn from Rapa Nui. All the income about the sales of the disk they go to the Toki Foundation.
Back on the island, Teava and her colleagues contribute to Rapa Nui’s efforts to become sustainable and waste-free by 2030.
“The ancestral vision of the Rapanui world emphasizes our connection with the Earth, to which we belong and for which we are responsible,” he explains.
Volunteers from all over the world took a year and a half to build the school, with waste left behind by tourists or with what was carried to the island by the tide, including tons of cardboard, cans, bottles and tires. It is self-sufficient with its own solar panels and rainwater collectors.
The foundation’s ecological work has taken on particular significance during the coronavirus pandemic, which hinted at the bleak future of an island extremely dependent on tourism and food imports: when flights from Santiago were suspended in March last year, unemployment soared and food reserves were depleted.
In addition to cultural activities and garbage collection initiatives, the foundation’s ecological project leader helped coordinate 500 communal plots and encourage the use of traditional stone gardens that protect crops from erosion and conserve moisture to alleviate food shortage.
“We are already facing many of the challenges that are going to affect the world in the next decade,” says Teave. “If we can make this island 100% sustainable, then Rapa Nui can become an example for the world to follow.”
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Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.